High Concept – What does it mean?

I recently found myself engaged in a conversation with a fellow writer about the meaning of the term ‘high concept’.

In the course of our conversation, it occurred to me that very few people understand exactly what high concept means. It is a confusing term, but it’s one that writers, especially those who are aspiring to be professional writers, need to understand.

If you’re an aspiring screenwriter you will almost certainly have heard this term somewhere on your screenwriting journey. If you’re a prose writer it’s possible that you’ve never heard this term. The term ‘high concept’ applies not only to screenwriters, but to playwrights, and prose writers.

So, what exactly does ‘high concept’ mean?

In a nutshell, high concept means that the STORY is the STAR of the movie/book/play.

Movies like The Terminator, Jaws, and Snakes on a Plane are all big budget/high concept films. And the title of these movies alone gives us a good indication of what the concept is about.

However, there are also low budget/high concept films such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cube, Pi, El Mariachi and Mad Max (yes, the original Mad Max/Road Warrior flick was a low budget movie). And again, the titles give us a good idea of exactly what kind of movie we’re going to see.

So, back to the question: what is high concept?

Well, there are varying ideas about what it means, but essentially a high concept idea is one that:

  • is unique
  • appeals to a wide audience
  • can be summed up in one sentence (i.e. you can instantly see the whole movie)

Now, there’s a lot of argument about this one sentence. Some say it should be no more than twenty-five words. It’s a prescriptive idea that new writers often cling to with unnatural tenacity. Truth be told, this sentence can, in fact, be as long as three sentences – or even four or five or six (any more than that and you’ve probably got some serious concept problems). Sometimes these sentences show the three act structure and some don’t. The only thing that really matters is that they sum up the STORY.

There are additional things that can help you decide if your idea is high concept. They include:

  • a degree of originality
  • highly visual
  • possesses a clear emotional factor
  • sparks a ‘what if’ question
  • has high stakes
  • has a time limit

Okay, so you know all this, but try as you might your story still isn’t high concept. What can you do to fix it?

Well, one problem is likely to be that your idea isn’t unique enough. You need to go back and brainstorm ways to make your concept more different and original. The entertainment industry (print or moving image) loves idea that are ‘familiar but different’. 

Another problem could be that you’re clouding the concept with irrelevant details. When you’re working on your concept, make sure you trim the fat. There are no if’s or but’s about this. If it has nothing to do with the spine of your story, cut it.

Genre confusion. This problem is a biggie. Each genre has its own rules and conventions. If you are writing a genre piece, it behooves you to know what those rules and conventions are, even if it’s is just so you can break them. Make sure you know which genre suits your concept.

What about conflict? What’s at stake in your idea? Who is going to lose what if something doesn’t happen? If your conflict isn’t strong enough, or unique enough, it’s back to the drawing board.

And finally, the ending. You ending could be vague, or you could have no ending at all. If you want to attract the attention of a producer or a publisher, you have to give them the whole story, not just the beginning and that great bit in the middle, but the whole story.

So, hopefully, you have a better understanding of what ‘high concept’ is. If you would like more information, why don’t you check out the definition proposed by The Writers’ Store.

Hope this helps and happy writing!

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